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Ever since Elon Musk's appearance on Clubhouse juiced Chinese web users' enthusiasm for the app, chatter about how Chinese tech firms can create a home-grown version of Clubhouse has been incessant.
China's early Clubhouse users enjoyed a fleeting moment of free speech before Beijing blocked the app on Feb. 8. This served as an opportunity for China's tech firms to build their own versions of the popular drop-in audio tool. According to Chinese internet consultancy iiMedia Research, more than 100 teams in China are developing audio-based social media apps. China Venture, a platform focused on equity investments, reported that over 50 Chinese venture capital and private equity firms have made investments in audio-based communication products.
Over the past three weeks, several Chinese audio-based apps have emerged on Apple and Android stores, and some have subsequently disappeared. [Protocol | China will discuss this issue in depth with investor William Bao Bean the morning of March 2 during a Clubhouse event. -Ed.]
Here's a partial list of the contenders.
MiTalk (米聊): Smartphone maker Xiaomi's MiTalk is the latest audio drop-in app on the market. Previously an instant messaging tool that Xiaomi first launched in 2010, MiTalk ceased operations on Feb. 19. But within a week, MiTalk reappeared as "an audio-based communication tool for professionals" on Feb. 26. Like Clubhouse, MiTalk is now invite-only.
Capital Coffee: 36Kr, the parent company of its eponymous Chinese tech publication, launched Capital Coffee, a Clubhouse-like tool for investors, on Feb. 22. It took the team less than 10 days to develop and launch the tool, 36Kr, the publication, reported. Capital Coffee is still in beta, but 36Kr claims the tool has already attracted more than 10,000 users to participate in its internal test, including partners of prominent Chinese VC firms.
Duihuaba (对话吧): Hong Kong-listed streaming company Inke launched Duihuaba (对话吧) or "Let's Talk" on Apple and Android stores just two days after censors shut down Clubhouse in China. The app's project leader told 36Kr that he asked Inke's C-suite on Feb. 3 whether he should make a clone. By that evening, the COO gave him an answer: "Start now." By late February, Duihuaba had attracted 4,000 registered users and 1,000 active users within only a week since it was released on Feb. 7. On Feb. 22, users found Duihuaba have been removed from the app stores. Inke explained that the app's technology is being upgraded and improved.
Clubhorse: Yes, it sounds just like a counterfeit Clubhouse, though Clubhorse's founder told Chinese media the tool's name was inspired by the Netflix show BoJack Horseman. Its interface looks a lot like Clubhouse, too. Clubhorse launched on WeChat as a "mini program," i.e. an app within the WeChat app, on Feb. 9. But it didn't last long. WeChat quickly moved to ban the program, according to the Global Times, giving two reasons for the removal: Clubhorse was suspected of disrupting official service functions and it had been reported for "suspectedly infringing on the legal rights and interests of others."
The list of Chinese companies trying to create Clubhouse clones will likely grow. Alibaba is rumored to be developing a similar tool called MeetClub. It's too early to dismiss these products as Clubhouse copycats. Many successful Chinese apps started out as a clear imitation of foreign tech counterparts: Taobao v. eBay, Weibo v. Twitter, Alipay v. PayPal. But those Chinese companies companies later scaled and innovated. The question for now is whether these Chinese audio communication tools can match Clubhouse' soaring popularity in a country with pervasive censorship.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the year MiTalk was founded.
Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. She has spent six years covering China from inside and outside its borders. Previously, she was a fellow at Asia Society's ChinaFile and a Beijing-based producer for CNN. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. Shen Lu is a founding member of Chinese Storytellers, a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry.